Can the Official Wing of the GOP Rein in the Angry Wing?

Elspeth Reeve
March 18, 2013

There were really two CPACs this weekend: official CPAC and angry CPAC. In official CPAC, aspiring Republican presidential candidates said vague things about their party's need to reach all communities -- as in, people who aren't white. And then there was angry CPAC, in which many panels and movies were tributes to Andrew Breitbart and his campaign to prove that liberals, not conservatives, are the real racists. This is where you could see the conflict between the party's attempt to get new voters and the rebellion of its old ones.

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Official CPAC happened mostly in the main ballroom, with several enormous TV screens and where reporters were corralled with free coffee and soda. Politicians like Rand Paul Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, plus "10 Conservatives Under 40" -- the kind of young smiling, people the GOP wants as its face on Sunday talk shows -- were official CPAC. The crowd expressed itself with standing ovations at official CPAC. Angry CPAC happened mostly in smaller rooms with less attractive people felt freer to show more outrage. The crowd expressed itself with shouted questions and applause at angry CPAC. Only the most famous members of angry CPAC, like Donald Trump and Ann Coulter, spoke in the main ballroom.

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On Monday, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus released an autopsy of its failure in 2012. "Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country," the RNC's document says. "If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence." Official CPAC was partially about softening that perception. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio imagined a family working so hard to get by that they might be susceptible to the argument that big government was their only choice -- and said Republicans needed to appeal to them. Even Sarah Palin, who always bashes the establishment, said, "It's time we all stop preaching to the choir, and let's grow."  The angry CPAC speeches in the same ballroom were not on-message. Donald Trump said a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants was a bad idea, because "every one of those 11 million will vote Democratic." Instead, he said, "Why aren't we letting people in from Europe?" Ann Coulter agreed: "If amnesty goes through, America becomes California and no Republican will ever win another election."

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After Occupy Unmasked, I had a long conversation about racial politics with Brian Holloman, a 25-year-old College Republican from Eastern Carolina University. I asked Holloman when he thought liberals had started using bogus racism claims for political gain. Since the 1960s, he replied, then reconsidered -- no, since the post-war era. I suggested that racist laws were still in effect back then. The country has changed, he said. What would he say to a liberal who said racism was still very real among conservatives -- like when Glenn Beck said on Fox News in 2009 that Obama hates white people? Beck was trying to say "that racism is a core of the left," Holloman said. "Beck was trying to portray what Obama believes.... When Obama talks about the rich, the haves vs. the have-nots... what he's really saying is 'white people.'" But Holloman conceded that he could see it the other way, that Beck was using race the way the left does. His friend, Josh Kerr, said Beck played "into the leftist game of dividing people." 

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In the area of the conference where different groups -- Seals Speak Out, College Republicans, the New Republican, etc -- were giving away free t-shirts, I spotted a young black woman with a cool haircut. Unfortunately, she was not a Republican. Though Jackie Quander says she's an independent, she's worked for several Democratic campaigns. Quander told me that while she liked Republicans' "economic freedom" message, she was turned off by rhetoric that seemed "so harsh" and "not fact-based." "Things that make you cringe make them clap," Quander said. She also felt that CPACers were hesitant to reach out to her. "I can walk down this thing and no one will talk to me."

I only heard two CPAC speakers refer to Mitt Romney's 47 percent video, and both of them were black. One was Oklahoma Speaker of the House TW Shannon, who said, "You might know [Oklahoma] as the reddest state in the nation, a place where President Obama lost every single county. That was even against Mitt Romney." That earned a mixed response from the crowd. "Is that too soon? For the record, I think that joke was only 47 percent funny." The other person was KCarl Smith, at the "Trump the Race Card" session. This panel's meltdown was one of the most fascinating moments at CPAC. But before the shouting began, Smith said he had to hold his nose to vote for Romney, because "he said a lot of things I didn't like" -- like the 47 percent comment, or that he didn't care about the poor. Smith's packed presentation was not, as it's been referred to in some reports, a panel on diversity, but instead billed as a lesson for conservatives on how to defeat charges they're racist. The solution, Smith said, was to start calling yourself a Frederick Douglass Republican, because Douglass went from escaped slave to wealthy intellectual -- "from the 47 percent to the 1 percent." And he loved the Constitution! The GOP was founded as an anti-slavery party, Smith said. Democrats are the real racists. He could have stolen Stephen Colbert's subtitle: "Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

And it was on this point that the session descended into chaos. A liberal and a segregationist both pointed out to Smith that he was skipping over a significant chunk of American political history -- the part where guys like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms became Republicans and sat in the U.S. Senate into the 2000sMatthew Heimbach, president of Towson University's "white students union," explained to me that he became a member of the "white dissident right" because, "I came to realize over time by reading Republicans of the 60s and 70s that the right-wing is lying to itself." Smith's liberals-are-the-true-racists talk as "not true," because, "Republicans did switch their policies in the 60s and 70s... Dixiecrats did switch parties." In his 2005 book, Helms defended his opposition to all civil rights legislation, writing, "I felt that the citizens of my community, my state and my region of the country were being battered by this new form of bigotry." The "Trump the Race Card" panel was one moment when Republicans couldn't talk about attracting more non-white voters without talking about why non-white voters don't like them in the first place. 

(Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.)